By Tristan Lavelette
For weeks after the ugly ball-tampering scandal blew up, I had friends and family ask me if the hefty suspensions handed down to Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were “really necessary”.
It was hard for those who don’t follow cricket to make sense of it all. The scandal was literally front-page news for one-week straight in Australia and everyone seemingly had an opinion on it, even those who don’t know what a nightwatchman is.
Essentially the confusion boiled down to this: Why are the trio being treated like criminals when the misdemeanour is barely treated as a crime under the laws of cricket? Even for those in the game, ball-tampering has long been a grey area and no one quite knows what the boundaries are. It’s a little like that mythical ‘line in the sand’ the Australians kept speaking about pre sandpaper-gate.
After years of turning a blind eye, the International Cricket Council – inevitably – unveiled tougher sanctions for ball-tampering during its annual conference in Dublin recently. Cricket’s governing body was belatedly forced to act after such a damaging period for the sport.
In response to the calamity of Cape Town and the subsequent unrelenting public backlash, the ICC have increased the penalties for changing the condition of the ball and players face a suspension of up to six Tests or 12 ODIs among a raft of changes to its code of conduct.
Cricket’s reputation hit a nadir during the ugly ball-tampering scandal which engulfed Australian cricket and led Cricket Australia to suspend leaders Smith and Warner for 12 months. Culprit Bancroft received nine months, while coach Darren Lehmann resigned in the aftermath.
Rightfully, the spotlight shined a light on the toxic Australian culture which had hit rock-bottom after years of poor behaviour and has resulted in two concurrent reviews into Australian cricket and its men’s team.
However, especially for non-cricket fans, it was hard to grasp how such a scandal – which hit the headlines across the world – was deemed a fairly trivial misdemeanour by the ICC.
Smith received a one-match suspension and Bancroft was lightly slapped with three de-merit points under the ICC’s then code of conduct, while Warner was not charged.
There was a great deal of confusion over the severity of the penalties handed down by CA but, essentially, the trio were slapped with bringing the game into disrepute rather than the ball-tampering fiasco per se with the governing body under pressure to act from an angry public and corporate sponsors.
After such a spiteful series against South Africa and with public sentiment against them, it was the perfect storm for Australia to be knocked from their perch although the actual act of ball-tampering made up just a piece of a complicated puzzle.
In the backdrop, the ICC’s toothless sanctions were made to appear farcical amid the rage over sandpaper-gate. What angered so many people was that the three Australian players had cheated, which is deemed the lowest act in sports.
For too long, ball-tampering – cheating – had been essentially ignored and hard to distinguish from ball-shining and reverse swing, accepted but somewhat murky practices. Players and officials had shrugged at the issue and pointed the finger back at the authorities. With the ICC’s laws so meek and vague, it was little wonder so many players – not just the disgraced Australian trio – had been willing to go down that dark path.
You would think that the scandal and the nasty aftermath would deter cricketers, especially those at the elite level, from doing anything dubious with the ball for at least the time being with scrutiny heightened.
However, Sri Lanka captain Dinesh Chandimal recently served a one-match suspension – under the old laws – for a tampering offence after he was seen putting something in his mouth before shining the ball during a Test in the Caribbean. It wasn’t quite comparable to the Australian incident – which included a foreign object, an inept execution of the tampering and an unwise cover up after the day’s play – but spoke of the ingrained disregard of the issue amongst cricketers.
One would hope the ICC’s increased sanctions will now put to bed this mischief but that would disregard the ambiguity surrounding ball-tampering. What actually is tampering and how does it differ to ball shining and reverse swing? After Cape Town, we can all acknowledge a foreign object is a no-go but how about sweets and gum?
Ironically, South Africa captain Faf du Plessis – twice convicted of ball-tampering – said it best last week on the eve of a Test series against Chandimal’s Sri Lanka. “The ICC has made the penalties a lot more strict but still haven’t said what is and what isn’t allowed,” he said. “Is chewing gum allowed? Is it not? Are you allowed mints in your mouth? For me, I need clarity still. I’m looking forward to speaking to the umpires before the game to make sure there’s clarity.”
The ICC has made commendable step in ratcheting the penalties but need to go a step further and clearly spell out what ball-tampering actually entails. If it doesn’t attempt to end the confusion then more scandals are undoubtedly set to plague cricket.